As someone with a passing interest in architecture and photography, I happened across Edward Denison’s Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City and fell in love with this city of contradictions. Eritrea is a country with a troubled past that’s only slowly opening its borders to the outside world. However, a fortunate result of this is that it means its unique architecture, influenced by the Ottomans, the Egyptians, the Italians, the British and the Ethiopians, has been almost perfectly preserved. Its landscape and coastline are in spectacular condition, and tourists are still a novelty, so the locals are incredibly welcoming.
Of all the architectural styles in the capital city of Asmara, the most striking is the Italian modernist style. These buildings have a strange contrast, as despite being visually spectacular, they are a testament to the country’s dark history. Eritrea was taken over by Italy during the Scramble for Africa in 1890. As Mussolini rose to power in the 1920s, he planned a ‘Second Roman Empire,’ with Asmara as the seat of Italian power in Africa, acting as a base for their continued invasion of the continent. By 1939, a massive influx of Italian immigrants to the city resulted in half the population being Italian and the city being called ‘La Piccolo Roma’ or ‘Little Rome.’ The city was developed when modernism was at the height of its popularity, and Western designers had a much freer reign than they had in their home countries, leading to bold and experimental design choices. Today, more than 400 modernist structures are still standing, thus, Asmara remains a testament to the futurist vision of Western designers in the 1930s and 1940s, a fascinating time capsule.
The Fiat Tagliero Service Station is probably the most striking and recognisable building in the city. Now lying deserted off a roundabout, it is bizarre to consider how a building with such a mundane function has such a surreal structure. It was built in 1938 by Italian architect Giuseppe Pettazzi to resemble an airplane, its 30-metre concrete wings stretching carelessly into the surrounding coastal desert landscape. Bar Zili resembles a giant, otherworldly radio, with a distinct retro interior. The Cinema Capitol has a retractable roof, demonstrating the architect’s experimentation with new technologies at the time. The Cinema Impero’s bold red façade separates it from its surroundings. Built in 1937, it still hosts thousands of Eritrean cinemagoers. Indeed, the variation of the bold colour choices add personality and vivacity to the city. The divergence of buildings from different eras, such as the central post office, built in 1915/1916, add yet more intrigue to this city of contrasts. The varying styles of the central Mosque, Catholic Cathedral and Orthodox Cathedral highlight the different cultures and influences within the city. Some may see these buildings as an unpleasant reminder of a difficult past, a stamp of colonialism and repression. However, the locals themselves wish to preserve their history, warts and all, as seen in 1996, when the ex-detention centre, Caserma Mussolini, was to be demolished and replaced with a German-designed high-rise. Bizarrely, it was the former prisoners themselves who fought for its preservation, emphasising that it was part of their heritage, and starting the conversation on what these buildings meant to the people of Eritrea. These structures are but the tip of the iceberg in a city that resembles time-worn, alien planet.
Following Eritrea’s independence in 1991, many of these buildings fell into disrepair, but in July 2017 the city of Asmara secured World Heritage Site status, and repair and preservation efforts are now well under way. Asmara is a hidden gem that must be seen to be believed, a time capsule to a different age, where the future meets the past, with a dark undertone of colonialism. ‘Africa’s Miami’ is a city of incongruity, a masterpiece of modernism.
Check out our tour of Somaliland, Eritrea and Socotra kicking off on May 15th 2018. If you wish to join for us for just part of the tour please contact us for pricing!.